The Dales in the late 9th to early 10th Century AD
A journey from Middleham to Giggleswick would take Alkelda, walking, or else on mule or horseback, across some of the most beautiful, wild and varied scenery in England. It was a landscape to that carries evidence of human and other animal habitation dating back to the neolithic age, evidence which is some of the most numerous in England and which since the 18th century, if not before, has drawn archaeologists and researchers to the Yorkshire Dales.
In the 9th century, the Yorkshire Dales, apart from isolated villages surrounded by small areas of pasture and cultivated land, would largely be untamed wilderness, the habitation of wild animals like wolves and wild boar, and no doubt, frequented in places by outlaws, thieves and robbers. Malham surrounded by its little square Celtic fields and lower down, medieval lynchets (strip cultivation) is a good example of the layout of an early medieval Dales village. Although extensive forests, woodlands and river swamps are long gone, what has not changed are the dramatic switches of scenery, tree and plant life created by jagged and fissured carboniferous limestone thrown up as cliffs, scars marred by gaping slits, crinkled, knotted crowns of rock, splintered blocks and platforms formed by the earth movements of the branches of the Craven fault. Carboniferous limestone or “karst scenery”, presented then as now a near treeless landscape, dotted with caves and waterfalls, a starkly beautiful moonscape even. Trees gripped in the vice of limestones grikes or fissures, would still struggle for life as they do now.
The features of limestone scenery provide a sheer contrast against the rounded outlines of the millstone grit moors with their distinctive trees, dark green grasses, tangled brown sedges, heather, and cotton grass. Limestone too has its own vegetation. Look out for field orchids and the rare yellow mountain pansy in late spring. You will not find blackberries or bilberries there.
Middleham was well-placed to receive the benefits of the kingdom of Northumbria, a kingdom which had produced Bede, the first English historian, Oswald the saintly king, Aidan, Cuthbert, Hilda, Caedman, the evangelist Paulinus, Wilfrid, founder of the original monastic church at Ripon, Alcuin of York, tutor to Charlemagne, holy Roman emperor, and of course, Eadfrith and the monks who created the Lindisfarne Gospels. The story of what happened to the kingdom of Northumbria after the Danish invasion of 866-7 AD will be told in the Guidebook.
It was three centuries after Alkelda, when lay brothers from the new monasteries arrived to cut down many of the trees and bring in their great flocks of sheep to graze the land. The landscape then took on much of the appearance we recognise today. The ancient prehistoric trackways and the Roman routes were there to be used, as they still are, by human traffic. It is these which we follow in the main, on St Alkelda’s Way.
In the 9th century, lower Coverdale would probably not only have more woods and forests, there would be varied land cultivation and more people with an advanced lifestyle compared with landscape use and the people of more remote and isolated Giggleswick.
Centuries ago, there would be thin tree cover on limestone, but elsewhere woodlands and even forests while several of the river valleys were choked with swamps, the streams an inland delta, not knowing where their main channel lay, waiting for the monks to arrive to clear out the waterways and direct their passage. Then, especially in Wharfedale, the effects of glaciation would strike the observant eye, while in Coverdale the close conjunction of high hill limestone and millstone scenery and lower down, the effects of a drier climate and the mixture of shale, limestone, millstone and alluvial deposits made for a richer environment with more trees and vegetation.